A defeat as painful in its potential consequences as it was passionless in its infliction – when Biarritz are at their most pragmatic, the cold-heartedness of their rugby sends a chill down the spine – leaves Bath playing Heineken Cup catch-up at a depressingly early stage in proceedings. The West Countrymen are not quite as far up the proverbial gum tree as they were after losing their first two European games last season: surely, not even they can find a way of messing it up against the struggling Italians of Aironi this weekend. But the pool is out of their control already and they will find it terribly difficult to restore a sense of order.
It should not be beyond the wit and wisdom of top-class players to engage their brains at important moments, even when what is meant to be a pressure-cooker contest is played with the lid off: Dimitri Yachvili, the wonderful Biarritz scrum-half, took all the right decisions yesterday, and also kicked quite beautifully in a difficult wind to steer the Basques to victory. Yet Bath were dire in the decision-making department. David Wilson's sin-binnable flap at the ball seven minutes from the end of time was spellbindingly bone-headed. So too was the collective failure of the midfield to do what Basil Fawlty would call the "bleeding obvious" and drop a goal at the last knockings.
Steve Meehan, the head coach, was profoundly unamused by these failures of application. Of Wilson – an international front-rower, for heaven's sake – he was openly critical. "Anyone who gets himself a yellow card frustrates the coaches and frustrates the team," he said after watching his tight-head prop stick out an errant hand as Yachvili attempted to release the ball from a cleanly won ruck seven minutes from the end of normal time. "We've already had too many cards this season. David apologised immediately, but it would be better to avoid the action and forget the apology."
When discussing the Strange Case of the Missing Drop Goal, he was even more frank and forthright. "We have to grow up," he said, his brow still furrowed from the effort of trying to work out why neither Sam Vesty nor Olly Barkley took advantage of the most inviting of positions with their side a point to the bad and time fast running out.
"It was such a straightforward thing. Biarritz win games because they kick their points and tick the board over three at a time. There were two or three opportunities in that one phase of play to do the same and we didn't take them." His message? "Be ruthless. Just get it done."
Smashed to kingdom come at Northampton and humbled at home by Gloucester in two of their three most recent Premiership outings, Bath were hardly in the best of places to confront last season's beaten finalists: a side boasting a second player of 24-carat quality in the supremely athletic back-rower Imanol Harinordoquy, together with an eclectic mix of Zimbabwean-born Americans, Norwegian-born Englishmen, New Zealand-born Samoans and Australian-born Australians, all of whom understand, in their extremely different ways, the Biarritz way of doing business. Bath could bring nothing "different" to the party, apart from giving the highly-rated young prop Nathan Catt a first start at European level.
When Catt picked up the club's most improved player award at last season's black-tie dinner, his delight was tempered by the former Bath wing David Trick, who, on presenting the gong, said: "Of course, this suggests you were pretty crap at the start of the season."
Yesterday, the joking stopped. Up against a fully-fledged All Black in the shape of Campbell Johnstone, he was thoroughly tested at the set-piece. If he finished one scrum sitting on Johnstone – better than the alternative, you'll agree – he spent much of his 54-minute outing wondering if life would always be this difficult. But he had his share of bright moments around the field, and his presence helped Bath generate a decent tempo in the first half.
They reached the interval eight points up, thanks to an early penalty from Barkley (who, in truth, did not have the best of days with the boot) and a fine try from Michael Claassens six minutes in. The South African scrum-half's ruck delivery to Barkley was far from sympathetic, but the centre found Nick Abendanon with an inspired pass out of the tackle, and when Matt Carraro was tackled just short of the line, Claassens was the first man in support.
Yet well before the end of the period, Biarritz were looking threatening, albeit in their own peculiarly stately fashion. And once they stopped coughing up hard-won possession in contact, they started to edge the penalty count. Twice in the third quarter, Bath obstructed the Basques at the line-out; twice, they paid the price to the tune of three points.
Barkley finally goaled a long-range shot on 70 minutes when David Flatman, on for Catt, won a decision against Sylvain Marconnet at a scrum, but Wilson's flash of indiscipline gave Yachvili another chance from the 40-metre range and the scrum-half, deadly from such a distance, judged the swirl of the wind perfectly.
"Dimitri is a bit special – a world-class No 9 – and he kept us going forward," remarked Iain Balshaw, once an esteemed member of a very decent Bath back division but now an honorary Basque. How did he feel on his return to old pastures? "It was bitter-sweet, but I'm Biarritz through and through nowadays." Whether his former club are through with this season's Heineken Cup, only time will tell. This much is certain, though: it does not look good.
Scorers: Bath: Try Claassens; Penalties Barkley 2; Biarritz: Penalties Yachvili 4.
Bath: N Abendanon; M Carraro (D Bell 76), S Hape, O Barkley, M Banahan; S Vesty, M Claassens; N Catt (D Flatman 54), P Dixon (R Batty 81), D Wilson, S Hooper, D Grewcock (I Fernandez Lobbe 66), A Beattie, L Watson (capt), S Taylor.
Biarritz: D Haylett-Petty; T Ngwenya, C Gimenez, M Bond, I Balshaw; J Peyrelongue (D Traille 64), D Yachvili; E Coetzee, R Terrain (B August 50), C Johnstone (S Marconnet 50), M Carizza (P Taele 71), E Lund, M Lund, I Harinordoquy (capt), R Lakafia (B Guyot 76).
Referee: J Jones (Wales).